Luce Review: A Compelling Psychological Drama That Will Stick With You For Days
I saw about three dozen films during the eight days that I spent at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. Among those screenings was the World Premiere of Julius Onah‘s Luce at the Library Center Theatre. I went into the film completely blind, something I wholeheartedly recommend, particularly at a film festival. As it turned out, Luce was one of my favorite movies to come out of Sundance. That in mind, due to the complexity of its story, characters, and dialogue, I knew I needed to see the film again before I felt comfortable enough to review it.
Luce is the type of film that instantly grabs your attention and will not let go until the end credits. It is a psychological drama that messes with your head by making you question the judgment of those around you.
The film opens up with Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), delivering a speech about how he overcame his traumatic childhood thanks to his adoptive parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Luce highlights the opportunities given to him and how, because of his parent’s lifestyle, he has been able to excel in school as one of the top students in his class. However, Luce’s poster boy status may not be entirely reflective of who he truly is. His teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), has become suspicious, so she begins to question his actions, motives, and behavior.
As previously noted, the film’s complexity and nuance make it hard to review. Based on a play by J.C. Lee, the heavy subject matter, make Luce a film requiring much thought and reflection to appreciate its brilliance. As a society, we are often guilty of putting others in boxes while trying to paint a picture of how an ideal person should look and behave. What we often forget is the enormous amount of pressure we not only put on ourselves but for others as well. We are quick to judge as we want people to act a certain way and lead by example. Luce dissects this concept through a handful of characters that makes for one of the most thought-provoking and compelling films of the year.
Luce has a lot to say about tokenism and how it is not reflective of the truth, especially with those who are part of an underrepresented group. This is what makes watching the scenes between Luce and Harriet so incredibly fascinating. As time goes by, we as audience members get to see the things that shape them as individuals, and how things aren’t always as they seem. Throughout the film, it is mentioned that Harriet tends to single out her students to use them as an example. Conversely, Harriet has created a facade of who she is and how she wants to be seen. During one intense scene, we see an extreme example involving her sister Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake). She storms into the school, screaming, “you’re ashamed of me” while stripping naked, with the other students taking note of how messed up the situation is.
There are many more ways this film examines the idea of conformity. I love movies that are unafraid to make the audiences uncomfortable because they ask the big questions, with the potential of sparking further discussion or debate. We are all responsible as individuals to be who we want to be even though we behave in ways society deems acceptable. It is rare to know what is going on in the lives of those who surround us. As stated in the film, we believe what we want to believe, and we see what we want to see. We are very much actors in our own story while being the person we believe others want us to be.
The performances in Luce, combined with the brilliant script, is what makes this film such a powerhouse. Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Octavia Spencer are electrifying, delivering every line of dialogue with such passion and conviction. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth are equally terrific as Luce’s parents. I love how Watts and Roth, throughout the film, have this different take on Luce’s behavior, given the amount of information they have received. Peter is very quick to call his son a liar and question whether he has made a mistake with adopting him. Amy, on the other hand, is much more concerned with finding out the truth while struggling to believe her son may be a monster instead of a saint.
There are a lot of films that have tackled race and how, as a society, we often label one another. However, no other movie in recent memory has explored these themes in such a compelling way as Julius Onah has done with Luce. This is truly a remarkable film, chock full of razor-sharp dialogue while having a lot to say about the current state of the world. Luce is one of the must-see movies of 2019 and one that will stick with you for days, if not weeks, after seeing it.